As I come to the end of Fleur Jaeggy's Last Vanities, 1994, tr. Tim Parks, I want to say a quick thing about the sixth piece in the book, The Twins, which achieves something that the other stories are chasing with less success. The style itself is quick march or blast-blast-blast, inserting the next idea directly ahead of you and letting you walk into it as if the story is a path that you are condemned to follow once you are set in place. Twins is different from the work of Robert Walser, which it resembles slightly, in that Jaeggy places things impatiently, not politely, but like him she will find an idea in or around whatever she has just written – it does not have to be the point of what she has written, only a stray thought or a word. She will uphold the enough-ness of a hint.
On the first page she mentions a cemetery.
A notice warns: Do not touch the flowers. In the German-speaking regions of the Alps flowers bud and bloom in furious haste, only to wither slowly, lazily. They too seem unhappy about strangers, for they change colour at the approach of eyes from another world, as if seized by frenzy. When the hay is gathered in, all the meadow flowers are mowed down, perhaps prematurely. Having snipped off some stalks and made them at home in a glass under the glare of an electric light, a poet compared their demeanor and gesturing to the abandonment of Saint Teresa as imagined by Bernini.
After a while a pastor comes in, travelling up to the Alpine town to do something – you learn that he is going to conduct a funeral service for a St Bernard. He shouts "Pagans!" Then we have the pastor's wife and a taxidermy owl that she buys because no one in Chur will stuff her dead cat. The word "owl" seems to come from nowhere, like "St Bernard"; for she is buying a stuffed something (the author has already followed this dead cat idea to a taxidermist's, now what?) and the something needs to be identified as a kind of thing. This is not the sort of writing in which objects are not named. So some noun is necessary, an animal noun because it had to be able to die, and some animal small enough for an average-sized Swiss-German woman to carry away from the shop by herself.
There is this idea of words being compelled to occur in the middle of the strict style, but it happens rather vaguely, as if the apparent confidence of the voice is all on the surface and underneath it is not sure of what it wants, exactly: why shouldn't it still have gone on if this had not been an owl.
Jaeggy is compelled to thrust against the Teutonic nuclear family in her stories again and again, which gives her a slight Jelinek smell. The pastor's wife is the latest sufferer. Her husband is saying "Pagans!" in the direction of the Twins, but now that the wife's misery has become accessible to the author she veers onto it for a while, going through the cat, the owl, sustaining the now-familiar repressive-family theme like that. (It's disappointing that she doesn't completely forget the Twins since it would have underlined her determination.)
What is this story getting at, you ask yourself; a meaning or point of view seems present yet evasive though you have a sense of it being there strongly somewhere because the author (in translation) is so plain, as if she is laying down facts that should not be avoided. The story itself is an action that gets you into the air.
Let me add that on Saturday evening I went to see a poet. When someone in the audience asked her to describe "your inspiration" she told us that the letter in the poem she had just read had been sent to her by a friend who used one word twice, close together (as we had noticed while she was reading it aloud). As soon as she encountered that replication, she said, she felt so happy with it that she had to find a reason to show it to the rest of the world. Then she wrote the poem as if she were putting a frame around a picture, though the ostensible story it had been made to describe was the afterlife of her dead mother.